Carlisle v. One Boat (HSC November 17, 2008)
Background. DLNR officers stopped a boat off the coast of Waianae. They saw the boat operators pulling up a net without a diver in the water. Pieces of coral were in the nets. The State petitioned the circuit court to forfeit the boat based on violations of DLNR administrative rules preventing the taking of stony coral. HAR §§ 13-95-70 and 13-95-71. The claimants moved to dismiss the petition on the grounds that the violations were not "covered offenses" and thus the State had no power to forfeit the coral. The circuit court agreed with the claimants and dismissed the petition by an order. However, the judgment was prepared by the State two years later. Once the judgment was entered, the State appealed to the ICA, which found appellate jurisdiction and reversed the circuit court.
An Appealable Order is a Final one. The HSC agreed with the ICA that there was appellate jurisdiction. In a civil appeal, the notice of appeal must be filed within 30 days after entry of the "judgment or appealable order." Hawai'i Rules of Appellate Procedure (HRAP) Rule 4(a)(1). Every judgment must be set forth in a separate document. Hawai'i Rules of Civil Procedure (HRCP) Rule 58. An appealable order is an order that "resolv[es] claims against parties only after the orders have been reduced to a judgment[.]" Jenkins v. Cades Shutte Fleming & Wright, 76 Hawai'i 115, 119, 869 P.2d 1334, 1338 (1994). The HSC noted that while there may be some exceptions to this bright-line rule, see Ditto v. McCurdy, 103 Hawai'i 153, 80 P.3d 974 (2003) and State Child Support Enforcement Agency v. Doe, 98 Hawai'i 58, 41 P.3d 720 (App. 2001), there was no exception here. Thus, there was proper appellate jurisdiction.
Heavy Reading. The HSC rejected the ICA's interpretation that DLNR violations are "covered offenses" under the forfeiture law pursuant to HRS § 199-7(b). Instead, its analysis began with the forfeiture law. Property is subject to forfeiture when it is used in the commission of a "covered offense." HRS § 712A-5(b). A "covered offense" is defined as any crime set forth in 712A-4 or "any other offense for which forfeiture is provided by the law[.]" HRS §712A-1. HRS § 712A-5 provides that offenses "for which property is subject to forfeiture under this chapter" include "[a]ll offenses which specifically authorize forfeiture." HRS § 712A-5(a). Other offenses are very specific (e.g. murder, kidnapping, gambling, etc.). The HSC explained that the definition of a "covered offense" provides two categories--those "crimes set forth in section 712A-4" and "any other offense for which forfeiture is proved by law[.]" The HSC interpreted this second category to mean the catchall in HRS § 712A-5(a). And so, the question is whether the DLNR violations here "specifically authorize[d] forfeiture." The HSC examined the administrative rules and the incorporating statutes and held that nothing in them authorized the State to bring a forfeiture action. Thus, the ICA erred in vacating the circuit court.
DLNR's Power to Forfeit Non-Natural Resources does not Circumvent the Forfeiture law. The HSC's interpretation of a plain statute is completely different from the ICA's interpretation of the same plain and unambiguous language. Unlike the HSC, however, the ICA looked to legislative history to support the plain-language interpretation. This, according to the HSC, was unnecessary. "Even when the court is convinced . . . that the legislature really meant and intended something not expressed by the phraseology of the act, it has no authority to depart from the plain meaning of the language used." State v. Klie, 116 Hawai'i 519, 526, 174 P.3d 358, 365 (2007). Nevertheless because of the differing interpretations and because "the result reached by the ICA may be appealing," the HSC examined the ICA's reliance on the legislative history.
"Any equipment, article, instrument, aircraft, vehicle, vessel, business records, or natural resource seized [by DLNR] is subject to forfeiture pursuant to chapter 712A." HRS § 199-7(b). The HSC observed the long legislative history of this provision and summed up that it did not "operate as a blanket authorization for forfeiture[.]" If forfeiture is authorized and the item is a natural resource, then it can forego the court proceedings in HRS chapter 712A. However, when the property is a non-natural resource, it must be a "covered offense."
So how Unambiguous is it when Differing Opinions Arise? The HSC concluded that reliance on legislative history was unnecessary, because the statute was plain and unambiguous. But because the ICA went ahead and did it, and because differing interpretations stemmed from the same unambiguous statute, it was compelled to examine legislative history. It appears that neither the HSC nor the ICA dispute that the language to these statutes were plain and unambiguous. But how can a statute be unambiguous when reasonable minds differ on its meaning? Isn't an ambiguous statute one where "there is doubt, doubleness of meaning, or indistinctiveness or uncertainty[?]" In re Water Use Permit Application, 116 Hawai'i 481, 489-90, 174 P.3d 320, 328-29 (2007). Aren't the reasonable, but differing, interpretations evidence of ambiguity? Perhaps so. But even if the HSC did state from the get-go that the statute was ambiguous, the outcome would probably have not changed. The HSC still investigated into the legislative history as if it would for an ambiguous statute. All's well that ends well. Right?